Something which can last

There's a great three-minute account of a meet­ing with Borges. About the life of an artist, he says:

The task of art is to trans­form what is con­tin­u­ous­ly hap­pen­ing to us, to trans­form all these things into sym­bols, into music, into some­thing which can last in man's mem­o­ry … as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may dis­cov­er that you are at the cen­ter of a vast cir­cle of invis­i­ble friends whom you will nev­er get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.

flickr lit photo

A peek into Obama's speech-writing process

Obama speech - Jon Favreau - FlickrPho­to: Pete Souza

I real­ly geek out out on glimpses of the marked-up copy of oth­er writ­ers, so I was pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ed to see a page of a Pres­i­den­tial speech-in-progress. If you click through to the zoomed-in page, you'll see that all of Obama's notes are all copy-edits; there are no devel­op­men­tal "what I'm try­ing to say here"-style edits. Not sure what that means, but I thought it was inter­est­ing. The Flickr cap­tion indi­cates that the pho­to was tak­en "in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2009, in prepa­ra­tion for the president's address to a joint ses­sion of Con­gress." Cool.

ixd lit

Fur flyin over The Atlantic's redesign

There's a lot of ani­mat­ed chat­ter among some of my favorite jour­nal­ists over the redesign of their publication's site. Last week, the Atlantic Month­ly rolled out what appears to the casu­al read­er as a slight update of the IA, along with some major changes to the way that blogs are inte­grat­ed. Read­er reac­tion was any­thing but casu­al; anger and sus­pi­cion seemed to be the most com­mon read­er emo­tions, shared, at least in part, by the writ­ers. The Wash­ing­ton Post's Ezra Klein nails the goal of the redesign, "Seems like a bet to re-cen­ter the Web site around the Atlantic as an insti­tu­tion rather than leav­ing it as a web host­ing ser­vice for a cou­ple of blog­gers." Which seems smart, actually.

The Atlantic online redesignThis clus­ter­cuss is the redesign. (I can't find a pic­ture of the "before," but it wasn't real­ly too dif­fer­ent, to the casu­al observer).

The real prob­lem: The redesign isn't rad­i­cal enough.It sim­ply shift­ed con­tent around — a sure-fire bet to piss off reg­u­lar read­ers. The redesign doesn't address big­ger prob­lems around find­abil­i­ty, read­abil­i­ty, nav­i­ga­bil­i­ty, what­ev­er you want to call a lin­ger­ing sense of not being able to get around eas­i­ly. It also breaks from a com­mon blog con­ven­tion: home­pages that includes lengthy con­tent for each post (UPDATE: they've changed this). The biggest change is that they've moved away from indi­vid­ual blogs as lin­ear, ever-expand­ing solo nar­ra­tives, which I think is inter­est­ing. What they're mov­ing toward is less clear.According to spir­it­ed com­men­tary by the Atlantic writ­ers, the redesign was dri­ven by the arcane cal­cu­lus of adver­tis­ing. I won't pre­tend to know how online ad place­ment works in a place like The Atlantic, but what I do know is that some­one told them to spread their fresh con­tent around, and it's kin­da half-spread.I am a big Atlantic read­er. I sub­scribe to the print edi­tion, and I reg­u­lar­ly read three of its blog­gers — Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Fal­lows and Andrew Sul­li­van. I sub­scribe to their feeds, so I don't go to unless I want to com­ment on Coates' blog, or read com­ments, which means I'll head there a cou­ple of times a week, but when I get there I'll be deeply immersed in a thread.To me, the true oppor­tu­ni­ty was to lever­age the sprawl­ing, smart con­ver­sa­tions that these writ­ers con­tin­u­al­ly cre­ate — to cre­ate a sort of salon among the read­ers and writ­ers. To Klein's point above, you'd think a vir­tu­al salon would be exact­ly the kind of thing that would "re-cen­ter" the brand. Break­ing out of the con­ven­tion­al blog mod­el is a rea­son­able first step. Blogs are long threads, and main­tain­ing indi­vid­ual threads need­less­ly inhibits wider-scale con­ver­sa­tion. So they've tak­en that half-step away from threads (which are a help­ful orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for read­ers), but the salon is nowhere in sight. And this is a problem.

lit outdoors

No amount of modification can substitute the man-made piano for the real thing

Thomas McGuane takes a shot at describ­ing what it's like to land a tar­pon:

The clos­est thing to a tar­pon in the mate­r­i­al world is the Stein­way piano. The tar­pon, of course, is a game fish that runs to extreme sizes, while the Stein­way piano is mere­ly an enor­mous musi­cal instru­ment, large­ly wood­en and manip­u­lat­ed by a series of keys. How­ev­er, the tar­pon when hooked and run­ning reminds the angler of a piano slid­ing down a pre­cip­i­tous incline and while jump­ing makes cav­i­ties and explo­sions in the water not unlike a series of pianos falling from a great height. If the read­er, then, can spec­u­late in terms of pianos that herd and pur­sue mul­let and are them­selves shaped like exag­ger­at­ed her­rings, he will be a very long way toward see­ing what kind of thing a tar­pon is. Those who appre­ci­ate nature as we find her may rest in the knowl­edge that no amount of mod­i­fi­ca­tion can sub­sti­tute the man-made piano for the real thing — the tar­pon. Where was I?

I came across this in The Best Amer­i­can Sports Writ­ing of the Cen­tu­ry, an absolute­ly killer col­lec­tion edit­ed by David Hal­ber­stam, but you can check it out in the SI Vault: "The Longest Silence," by Thomas McGuane.

lit the ancient past

Learning how not to think

If you haven't read David Fos­ter Wallace's 2005 com­mence­ment address at Keny­on, you should. It's hum­ble and real and warm, and tru­ly great. It's also very dif­fi­cult to read. After his sui­cide, it's impos­si­ble not to hear the echoes of Wallace's inter­nal con­ver­sa­tion, the dark­ness and doubt and obses­sive thoughts that he clear­ly strug­gled to get a han­dle on.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to stay alert and atten­tive, instead of get­ting hyp­no­tized by the con­stant mono­logue inside your own head (may be hap­pen­ing right now). Twen­ty years after my own grad­u­a­tion, I have come grad­u­al­ly to under­stand that the lib­er­al arts cliché about teach­ing you how to think is actu­al­ly short­hand for a much deep­er, more seri­ous idea: Learn­ing how to think real­ly means learn­ing how to exer­cise some con­trol over how and what you think. It means being con­scious and aware enough to choose what you pay atten­tion to and to choose how you con­struct mean­ing from expe­ri­ence. Because if you can­not exer­cise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be total­ly hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excel­lent ser­vant but a ter­ri­ble master.

It's not tech­ni­cal­ly avail­able online, but you might be able to stum­ble across it in the depths of the Inter­net archives. Thanks, Dave.

featured lit web

Grammar of the future, future, future

Doug LeMoine is puz­zled that the con­struc­tion of Face­book sta­tus updates requires me/him to refer to myself/himself in the third per­son. This for­mat gives struc­ture to the News Feed, but it also encour­ages the updater to craft the update as a sen­tence begin­ning with his/her full name. The forced third-per­son would seem to cre­ate myr­i­ad gram­mat­i­cal prob­lems as peo­ple try to con­struct mean­ing­ful sen­tences, but pret­ty much every­one ignores gram­mat­i­cal cor­rect­ness (not sur­pris­ing). The sur­pris­ing thing is, gram­mat­i­cal­ly incor­rect sta­tus updates don't real­ly seem weird (to me) any­more.(It's pos­si­ble that I'm tak­ing this all far too seri­ous­ly).When I first joined Face­book, I duti­ful­ly wrote all of my sta­tus updates in the third per­son, as the for­mat dic­tates. Because I am both a gram­mar snob and a rule-follower.

Rule-abiding: Doug … his

Facebook third person status update

This con­struc­tion is appro­pri­ate for the feed, but it's also ter­ri­bly awk­ward. Sta­tus­es are usu­al­ly per­son­al, "microblog-ish" bits of con­tent, and it just sounds weird when per­son­al stuff is writ­ten in the third per­son. Recent­ly, I start­ed to lapse into the first per­son in the body of the sta­tus, and while doing so, I cringed in antic­i­pa­tion of the inevitable condemnation. 

Rule-bending? Rule-breaking? Rule-adapting: Doug … my

Facebook first person status update

But so far, there has been no con­dem­na­tion forth­com­ing. Why? Maybe we all quick­ly become blind to the total­ly obvi­ous dis­agree­ment? Or maybe it just makes cog­ni­tive sense that the con­tent of the sta­tus will be in the first per­son? If the lat­ter is true, how soon will we be updat­ing Fowler and Strunk & White to reflect this new kind of usage?

ideas ixd lit

To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas

Last night I read the New York­er pro­file of Matthew and Michael Dick­man, poets from Port­land, Ore­gon who hap­pen to be iden­ti­cal twins. (Here's the abstract). In their work, they have very dif­fer­ent voic­es, but there's a strange sort of twin telepa­thy that seems to exist with­in it. They also edit each other's work, pro­vid­ing insight and feed­back to each oth­er about works in progress. Dur­ing one edit­ing ses­sion, one of the Dick­mans recalls an inter­view with for­mer Amer­i­can poet lau­re­ate Mark Strand in which Strand cau­tions against rely­ing on "clus­ters of words" that pop into your head … This sound­ed to me like a good rule of thumb for writ­ing. (It also added fuel to the fire of my dis­like of Twit­ter and Twit­ter-like tools that encour­age peo­ple to offer half-cocked, cliche-rid­den mini-opin­ions about every­thing.) I plun­dered the Inter­net in search of the inter­view. Turns out that he was refer­ring to a 2003 piece in Post Road Mag­a­zine. It was con­duct­ed by writer Michael O'Keefe. The rel­e­vant bit is the last pas­sage from Strand, but the con­text is helpful:

Mark Strand: Nobody wants to arrive because that's the end. One wants to have open­ings con­stant­ly before him so there are places to go.Michael O'Keefe: Do you believe that some­times words can get in the way when you write?MS: Words do get in the way when you have heard them used in a par­tic­u­lar man­ner before. When you write all you've got are words but they both get in the way and serve as a sal­va­tion.MO: Do you avoid using any kind of com­bi­na­tions of words that you could remem­ber eas­i­ly?MS: Yeah, I mis­trust them because it means that they exist­ed in that way before. The idea is to use a mod­i­fi­er-noun com­bi­na­tion that may nev­er have been used before. Oth­er­wise you may be just quot­ing oth­ers or quot­ing your­self. The excite­ment comes when you have done some­thing that was unthink­able before.

Amen, broth­er. Mis­trust ease. Seek the unthinkable.In my dig­ging, I also found some excel­lent Strand resources, includ­ing a nice inter­view in a 1975 issue of Ploughshares and a very help­ful page at the Library of Con­gress that even­tu­al­ly led to my dis­cov­ery of the above interview.

lit politics



Con­fu­cius: To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowl­edge. Don­ald Rums­feld, for­mer Sec­re­tary of Defense, aka "Rums­fu­cious:" As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say: We know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know. — Feb. 12, 2002, Depart­ment of Defense news brief­in­gTh­ore­au cites Con­fu­cius dur­ing a dis­cus­sion of self-knowl­edge in Walden, and it remind­ed me of Ol Rum­my. Looks like he was on to some­thing deep­er after all. I thought he was talk­ing about intel­li­gence, but he was real­ly get­ting at "true knowl­edge." Per­haps the US gov­ern­ment should cre­ate a Cen­tral True Knowl­edge Agency? Speak­ing of true knowl­edge, the entire­ty of Walden is online.

lit tech

Kindle on the iPhone / Buy futures in poetry

Emerson - Self-Reliance - Kindle - iPhone

If I were a deriv­a­tives man, I'd go to the Chica­go Board of Trade and buy up some poet­ry futures. Sell frozen orange juice and pork bel­lies; buy poet­ry. Why? Because it is the per­fect prod­uct for small screen read­ing. Peo­ple are read­ing more and more stuff on small­er and small­er screens, every­one knows this, duh. War and Peace is avail­able for the Kin­dle, but who wants to wres­tle that mon­ster through a key­hole? Any­way, last night, I down­loaded the awk­ward­ly named Kin­dle for the iPhone. I had tried to become a Kin­dle user (of the device — con­fus­ing, yes?). I failed at this, but I had some Kin­dle-ized books left over — Leaves of Grass and the Mod­ern Library's Essen­tial Writ­ings of Ralph Wal­do Emer­son — and I down­loaded those. I didn't real­ly expect much. Twice today, I found myself read­ing through sec­tions of Leaves of Grass: "A PROMISE to Cal­i­for­nia, / Also to the great Pas­toral Plains, and for Ore­gon: / Sojourn­ing east a while longer, soon I trav­el toward you, to remain, to teach robust Amer­i­can love." Good read­ing as I watched the lunch crowd at Mixt Greens. The entire Leaves of Grass is avail­able on Bartle­by, by the way. Then, as I was wait­ing for a con­fer­ence call to start, I read Emerson's poem "Self-Reliance." Hard to con­duct a con­fer­ence call with a mind thus expand­ed by poet­ry, but I think I can get used to it. Poet­ry on the iPhone! It makes a lot of sense, and Ama­zon did a nice job with the inter­face. Sim­ple, to the point, no BS, just like read­ing should be. 

lit the ancient past


John Updike - Time

I love writ­ing let­ters, but for some rea­son the only let­ter-to-the-edi­tor I've ever writ­ten went some­thing like this: 

Dear Mr. Rem­nick, If you pub­lish one more sto­ry by John Updike, so help me God I will can­cel my sub­scrip­tion immediately.Sincerely, Doug LeMoine

The year was 1999. I had been dri­ven to what I saw as the brink — of patience! of san­i­ty! — by the New Yorker's inces­sant pub­lish­ing of Updike's fic­tion, which seemed (to me) not only inces­sant, but over-styl­ized, nau­se­at­ing­ly East Coast-ish, maudlin, wood­en. No mat­ter my mood, I found it insuf­fer­able and insult­ing, tone-deaf when it came to any­thing but old­er white guys. I don't like to speak ill of the depart­ed, so I'll stop there and I'll admit that I've soft­ened in the mean­time. Updike's lit­er­ary crit­i­cism is — who can argue? — instruc­tive and insight­ful. He knew his stuff, and I felt enriched (some­times grudg­ing­ly so) when I read his reviews. With regard to the afore­men­tioned let­ter, my hand was forced almost imme­di­ate­ly. Updike had pub­lished some­thing like 25,000 sto­ries in the New York­er to that point, so I might as well have told John Hen­ry to stop dri­ving steel, or for Jer­ry Gar­cia to stop jam­ming. By the time my let­ter was flut­ter­ing into David Remnick's trash­can, I was already being forced to make good on my threat, a task that was ulti­mate­ly embar­rass­ing in its cold, bureau­crat­ic exe­cu­tion. Con­trary to any engaged reader's con­cep­tion of the pub­lish­er-read­er rela­tion­ship, when you say "I'd like to can­cel my sub­scrip­tion," they don't trans­fer you to the desk of the edi­tor so that you can ream him a new one. You hear a few key­strokes, and then get asked if there's any­thing else you need help with. Upon reflec­tion, this expe­ri­ence was a life les­son in itself. Mr. Updike, I thank you, and I wish you well.